The Inside Man
In the coming weeks, Minneapolis police chief Tim Dolan will face a tough reappointment process. But for this hockey-playing son of the city’s north side, tough is just another day.
MINNEAPOLIS POLICE CHIEF Tim Dolan swings his unmarked cruiser around a corner onto north Broadway Avenue as smoothly and steadily as a parade float. The chief, 54, with a compact physique and youthful face, grew up on the city’s north side. This street was on his paper route back when he prowled the neighborhood on a Schwinn.
“I was out early every morning,” Dolan recalls. “I had a route from Broadway to 26th and from Emerson to Washington.” This was in the ’60s, he adds, when the main drag had a Woolworth’s, a Mickey’s Diner, and a Broadway Diner. “They would all feed me, the diners and stuff. I would get a burger at Mickey’s, a doughnut at Broadway.”
Presently, the chief is AWOL from a meeting back at city hall. But he’d rather drive. “I loved working the street as a patrolman,” he says. “It’s still the best job in the police department. It’s an adrenaline junkie’s job. You’re driving around with the window open. You’re not punching the time clock. You have enough free time to do things proactively that you want to do. And you wonder what people do in the chief’s office. I mean, what can they possibly do?”
What Dolan has done as chief has been the subject of much scrutiny lately. He is expected to face a public hearing and a vote by the Minneapolis City Council regarding reappointment sometime in the next few weeks or months. (His contract has expired, but he can stay on without a vote until the end of June.) Most predict that the chief will be reappointed, but that outcome is hardly a sure thing given the rocky nature of his first three-year term. Dolan oversaw several hefty police-misconduct settlements, was accused of racial bias, drew fire from city council members angry about a multimillion-dollar budget overage, and recently found himself “shocked and embarrassed” after one of his officers was arrested for bank robbery. He also roused the ire of the rank and file for meting out more discipline than his predecessors. Things hit bottom last year when the police union tried to bring a criminal charge against the chief for boarding his dog at the department kennel. The charge went nowhere, but, for Dolan, it was a real you-know-they-hate-you-when moment.
It’s not a pretty picture. But then, it’s rarely been pretty for Minneapolis’s police chiefs, who take on one of the most high-profile jobs in the city. Dolan ascended to the office in May 2006, after his predecessor, William McManus—who came to Minneapolis from Dayton, Ohio—declined to seek reappointment and moved to San Antonio, Texas, after little more than two years on the job.
It’s unlikely that Dolan will be packing up for Texas or anywhere else. He’s a product of the MPD, having served on the department for 27 years. And he comports himself like the local he is. He’s earnest and understated, with a voice so measured that sometimes you have to lean in to hear him. He prefers a police uniform to fancy suits. He works hard, but doesn’t describe his efforts in grandiose terms.
Having presided over years of declining crime and the city’s lowest murder rate in a quarter century, it seems obvious that the chief is adept at practical police work. He’s less so when it comes to the public-relations part of the job, however, which means he’s been caught off guard by how some of his decisions have played on the street and at city hall. “I was never someone who was interested in politics,” says Dolan. “I said before I took the job, I am not political. But I tell you, after being the chief for a while, if you aren’t somewhat political, you will get slaughtered in this job. It’s a very tough environment. I’m still learning. I’ve stepped on plenty of land mines.”
ONE MORNING, roughly a year ago, a motorist named Derryl Jenkins was stopped for speeding on Minneapolis’s north side. Video captured by a dashboard camera (and later broadcast repeatedly on television news) shows that, while Jenkins offered no resistance, Officer Richard Walker wrestled him to the ground. Additional officers arrived on the scene and proceeded to kick and punch Jenkins, who lay motionless face-down in a snow bank. It was one of a string of brutal arrests caught on camera and made public last year, including the arrest of Rolando Ruiz, who screamed in agony while being tasered in the neck to the point of unconsciousness.
These are the sorts of incidents that make a chief want to crawl under a rock. “There seems to be no end to the challenges of managing officers,” says former MPD chief John Laux, who served from 1989 to 1994 and was the last chief to come up through the ranks before Dolan. “You can be busting proud one day for some of the heroic and outstanding work they do. Then somebody steps out of line and it’s history repeating itself. You try to put a lot of things in place to prevent that, recruiting and training and all the things you do to try to get the right people wearing that uniform. There just seem to be those events you wish would never happen. They are unprofessional and, in a few cases, criminal, but always disappointing.”
The MPD has a long, nagging history of misconduct troubles. And it’s been expensive: Over the last seven years, the city has paid an average of $1.5 million per year to settle legal claims against the department. Payouts by St. Paul, which typically sees one-third as many murders and has 600 officers compared to Minneapolis’s 880-person force, are markedly less, averaging $167,000 over the last seven years. Dolan dismisses any comparison, calling the adjoining cities “two different worlds.”
Booker Hodges, head of the NAACP’s Minneapolis chapter and a deputy sheriff in Dakota County, says that Dolan has generally done “a good job of managing the department.” Hodges once served with Dolan on the Police Community Relations Council, part of a 2003 federal mediation agreement that required Minneapolis police and various community representatives to meet for five years with the goal of alleviating long-standing tensions. “My problem with Chief Dolan is that the city continues to pay out these exorbitant amounts in lawsuits when they could curb this behavior,” Hodges says. As a result, the MPD has a serious image problem. “People are saying that the police just beat everybody up,” Hodges says. “They lie on reports and make stuff up.”
It’s hard to say whether payouts linked to allegations of police misconduct have declined under Dolan. Such claims can take years to wend their way through the court system. But thus far, claims filed early in his term, between 2006 and 2008, have cost the city an average of $539,000 per year. Dolan sees signs of a positive trend, but acknowledges that improvements are “going to take time. It’s a change process.”
THROUGH A BLANKET OF FRESH SNOW, Dolan drives along 25th Avenue, past rows of working-class, no-frills housing. He stops at the corner of Sixth Street, the heart of the Hawthorne neighborhood, one of the roughest in the city. “This is the corner where I grew up,” he says.
Born in May 1955, Dolan was raised in a small duplex that has since been torn down. The house had a simple wooden front porch and was sided with tar shingles. He shared the second story with his mother and father, Irene and Jack Dolan, and his three younger brothers. Downstairs lived Irene’s parents, both Polish immigrants. The near-north side has historically served as a gateway for the city’s new arrivals, whether Jewish, African American, or Hmong. Dolan recalls the north side of his youth as a patchwork of close-knit communities: His was rooted in the Catholic Church of St. Philip, three blocks from his house, where he served as an altar boy and attended grade school.
Irene Dolan ran a strict household, keeping a close eye on her four boys. Darryl Weivoda, who owns a hardware store on north Penn Avenue and spent so much time at the duplex he was dubbed “the fifth Dolan brother,” remembers it as a place steeped in tradition, full of rituals from the old country. At Christmastime, he recalls, “Grandma would come up wearing an apron and would reach into her pockets and would give us a Polish blessing to chase away the demons.” The blessing involved throwing handfuls of hazelnuts and walnuts. “The first time it happened, we were all sitting on the floor playing a board game. Grandma came up and walked into the kitchen. The boys started hiding behind the chairs and couch, but I was unaware of what was going to happen. Then she started wailing nuts at us and saying stuff in Polish.”
Dolan’s father, Jack, was, by all accounts, a buccaneer, a larger-than-life figure. “When all the guys got together, we’d say, ‘Whose dad is the best?’” Weivoda recalls. “Jack always won. He was a guy’s guy.” A security officer with the U.S. Postal Service, Jack Dolan worked on trains transporting mail across the country, and would often be gone for days at a time. “He actually wore a badge and carried a gun,” Dolan says. “All they were doing was sorting mail and carrying mail, but they were still afraid that Jesse James would come along.” (After Jack died in 2005, Dolan, who has a sentimental streak, took to carrying his father’s 1950s-era Smith & Wesson Chiefs Special on the job.)
The Dolan brothers were extremely competitive, a trait that manifested itself in playing sports. Tim swam and played baseball, tennis, and football, but his true love was hockey. He played forward and defense on teams at DeLaSalle High School and later at the University of St. Thomas. On the ice, Weivoda recalls, Dolan was a force to be reckoned with. “Tim was one of the guys who, if you could get around him and you threw a check into him, was going to throw a check right back at you. And his check was probably going to be harder than your check.”
Sometimes, however, that daring streak could lead to trouble. Dolan remembers fishing for carp as a youth and messing around on the banks of the Mississippi, a relatively lawless area of the city, especially back then. During the construction of Interstate 94, he and his buddies regularly lurked among the vacant houses that had been slated for demolition. “They were all open, so you could go through them,” he recalls. “Some of them had stuff left in them. Once I found a pool cue.” For a teenage boy, it was Adventureland, a maze of dark corners and creaking floors. The area was also full of construction equipment, which proved just as tantalizing: One day, Dolan commandeered a front-end loader and drove it around the block until he got caught. “There was a silver button where the ignition switch is,” he says, still sounding mischievous. “You just pushed that button and it started up.”
On another occasion, Dolan burned the mailbox next to the Church of St. Philip, which was full of Christmas cards and cash at the time. He recalls the singed cards fanned out on a table for his benefit. “That was the last straw,” he says. “My dad worked for the post office. It was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to get you a job. And you aren’t going to have any more time to hang around down at the river.’ I was pretty close to going to Red Wing at that point.”
Yet Dolan was also a kid who grew annoyed when others “did the wrong thing,” Weivoda recalls. “Tim was always the guy who made sure that we didn’t step out of line. We knew who was in charge.”
This was never more true than with Dolan’s brother Paul, just 11 months his junior. Tim and his brother were close growing up, swimming and fishing and playing on the same sports teams. “He was actually a better swimmer than I was,” Dolan says with some pride. “He was outstanding.” But the two fell out during high school. “Paul had his friends, and they were into dope back then,” the chief recalls. He tried to intercede but Paul resisted. “He’d say, ‘These are my friends.’ Trying to make those decisions where you stand on your own two feet, that was something that he was never able to do.” Last fall, Paul, a postal worker, pled guilty to possessing methamphetamine and growing marijuana in the basement of his Minneapolis home. In the midst of Paul’s legal troubles, Tim Dolan took his brother out for lunch. “I love him,” the chief says. “But we just are on different wavelengths.”
DOLAN GRADUATED from DeLaSalle in 1973 and enrolled at St. Thomas with the sole aim of playing hockey. “At first, I only achieved what I needed to stay eligible to play,” he says. “Eventually, I matured a little and the school pulled me in.” He studied sociology and English composition. (He later returned to the university to obtain a master’s degree in public administration and education.)
Dolan quips that, with a sociology degree, his professional options were limited. But in 1978, he landed a job with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. It was around this time that he also met his future wife, Lori Beck, at a friend’s party. She was a graduate of St. Catherine University, “very much an intellectual and a hard worker,” Dolan says. “She hated jocks, so if we had met in college she would never have had the time of day for me. I had changed during those years to where I was not quite the jerky jock anymore. So we hit it off. It’s been 30 years now.” The Dolans have four sons, ranging in age from 17 to 26. All of them play hockey.
In 1983, Dolan joined the Minneapolis Police Department. He steadily ascended the ranks, passing the exams necessary for advancement, and eventually commanding the narcotics unit and the SWAT team, which serves high-risk warrants. “My nature is that I’m comfortable wherever I’m at, and I will make the most of that situation, rather than always looking for the next step,” he says. “I never looked forward to the next rank. The only reason I ever took those tests is because I’m very competitive by nature. And I looked at it as being, If I’m going to take those tests, I’m going to do well.”
In 1999, after 16 years with the department, Dolan was made inspector for the Fourth Precinct, which meant he was now in charge of policing the very neighborhood where he grew up. “I had tried to stay away from the north side as a cop because I know so many people there,” says Dolan, who lives in Edina. “It makes your job a 24/7 job. And also, you might be stopping a friend or relative on a DUI. I just didn’t need that. But I found that, as an inspector, that actually was very, very helpful. It was motivating. I wanted to make things better.”
He ran the command for five years and can name a major incident that, for him, defines each year. Yet he considers his time in the Fourth Precinct a success, especially when it came to addressing truancy and juvenile crime. The fate of kids is of special interest to Dolan, perhaps because he himself was twice accosted as a youth. Once, under the now-demolished Lowry Bridge, an older boy tried to extract sexual favors, but Dolan pled his way out of the situation. Ever the sociologist, the chief speaks of his attacker with detached curiosity: “I oftentimes have thought of trying to look him up, to find out whatever happened to him.”
Dolan’s juvenile policing efforts centered on truancy patrols. The idea was that if minors—responsible for more than half of the neighborhood’s crime—were in school, they wouldn’t be idling on the street. If a kid missed class, an officer called the parent. If the kid missed more classes, an officer went to the house. If the kid was found lounging on the sofa watching television, the officer drove him or her to school. “We had five straight years of declines in crime,” Dolan says. He was making his reputation, and others in the department were taking notice.
John Locke, who spent 28 years with the MPD and now serves as investigative supervisor for the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, told friends in high places to keep an eye out for Dolan, that someday he’d make a good chief. “I thought, first off, He’s smart. He has a master’s degree,” says Locke, who admired Dolan’s work on the SWAT team and liked that he didn’t hide behind a desk. Locke grew up on the north side, too, and knew the Dolan family. “He always was a kid who listened a lot. He’d look at the facts before making a point or giving an opinion. There are some people who have an answer right away and rant and rave for five minutes. He’s not one of those guys.”
Word of Dolan’s skills and successes reached the ears of then-chief Robert Olson, who had come to Minneapolis by way of Yonkers, New York. In January 2004, Dolan was brought downtown to take over the department’s administrative services, mainly personnel and budget. After Olson was ousted and McManus was hired, Dolan became the MPD’s first assistant chief, running the day-to-day operations. When, not long after, McManus left before his contract was up, the city figured maybe it was time to try an insider.
EACH NEW CHIEF in Minneapolis promises to get tough on bad cops. But can a homegrown chief fix the problems of the very department from which he arose? Former council member Ralph Remington, who was the lone vote against Dolan when he was appointed in 2006, says no. “It’s like when your college friends call you up and you are in the position to help them out. You are going to do it,” Remington says. “If you are a cop, you’re put in so many tense life and death situations, the favors start piling up. You start owing people stuff. The minute the decision was made to go with an insider, I think, any hope of real reform went out the window.”
The assumption is that a chief who has climbed the ladder within the MPD will be entangled by allegiances and friendships—and thus, can’t get tough when toughness is required. But hiring an outsider can have downsides, too: A chief unfamiliar with the local culture can vex elected officials, the public, and the rank and file. And sometimes they don’t stick around very long, using Minneapolis as a steppingstone to a position in a larger city.
Dolan’s insider status hasn’t kept him from cracking down on misconduct. According to department records, he has fired or accepted the resignations of 19 officers, more on average per year than his predecessors. After the Ruiz and Jenkins arrests were caught on camera, he turned both cases over to the FBI for investigation. “They may have ended up there anyway,” Dolan says, “but I wanted the outside review.” And he did something unusual: He forced every officer to watch the Jenkins video with a supervisor. This might not sound earthshaking, but among the MPD’s 880 badge-wearing authority figures, the move made waves. “Coming out and saying that I don’t like what I’m seeing here, that irritated the cops to no end,” says Dolan. “They feel that, ‘You’re our chief, support us.’ I did come down like a ton of bricks on them. But I wanted to shock the system.”
He also has stopped finding desk jobs for cops who lose their peace officer’s license or right to carry a gun due to a criminal charge, or their ability to drive due to a DUI. “I believe that if some people do certain things, then they don’t belong in law enforcement,” says Dolan. “I have a lot of pride in the occupation. I love the Minneapolis Police Department. But when I took the job, I changed our policy. I said if you can’t work for a period, if it’s over 90 days, I’m going to terminate you. I think that’s just fair to the residents of Minneapolis.”
The chief prides himself on decisiveness. “I told [the officers] when I took this job, one of the things I didn’t like about previous administrations was that they sat on the fence,” he says. He’s just as likely to pick sides when he believes someone has acted heroically or, at least, according to policy. “If it’s right, it’s right,” he says. “I’m going to say it’s right.” In two instances, Dolan dispensed medals to cops involved in highly controversial cases: the 2006 shooting of 19-year-old Fong Lee, who was fleeing police at the time, and the 2007 raid on the home of Vang Khang, which was based on incorrect intelligence and resulted in a shootout. He says he would do the same again: “I am going to make decisions based on the facts, not on political sentiment. If I did anything else, I would hate myself and this job.”
Hodges credits the chief for getting rid of many problem officers. But, he says, “Where he’s not firing people is for use of excessive force. I think he’s a good person, I really do. But he’s a cop’s cop. He’s going to protect his people.”
It’s often difficult to track the outcomes of complaints regarding police misconduct. (Data-privacy laws restrict access to such information gathered by the department’s Internal Affairs Unit. The same is true for cases filed with the Civilian Police Review Authority, a public board that investigates accusations of police impropriety.) A report issued by the CRA in December, however, faults the chief for disregarding the majority of its findings, including those alleging excessive force. The report rates his performance in this regard as “unsatisfactory.” CRA chair Donald Bellfield adds, “There seems to be a lack of leadership in the department.”
Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak wishes Dolan hadn’t given medals in the Khang case, which led to a $626,922 settlement last year against the city. “It was not a politically smart move,” he says. “It sent the wrong message to people who had suffered already. But it showed that the chief is not going to ask his officers to do a tough thing and then sell them out. I believe the chief has quietly, but very effectively, been extremely supportive of the officers doing good work and very hard on those stepping out of line.
“I watched Chief Dolan during the first five years I was in office,” says Rybak, a longtime champion of Dolan. “I was generally impressed with him when I met him, but my view of him grew and grew as I got to know him. I think he is humble to a fault. The chief happens to be, in a way that he doesn’t wear on his sleeve, extremely intelligent. He is also unflinchingly honest in a profession that is desperately in need of more people who can be tough crime fighters but also moral leaders.”
STILL, SOME OF DOLAN'S EFFORTS have raised eyebrows. Early in his term, he made a series of demotions, which included several high-ranking African-American officers. “He replaced all of these folks with white folks,” says Remington. “It was like Michael Corleone taking out the heads of the five families.” The demotions became part of a lawsuit filed in 2007 by five black officers claiming a long-standing pattern of racism within the department. Last year, the city settled the case for $740,000. Dolan says all but one of the demotions were disciplinary in nature, but he acknowledges, “It’s something I would probably handle a little bit different today, having a little more wisdom on the job.”
Department records suggest that Dolan has diversified the ranks. Of the 159 officers he has hired during his tenure, 49 are people of color, bringing department-wide diversity to almost 19 percent, the highest level it’s ever reached in a city whose population is now two-thirds white. Dolan also recently appointed an African American, Lieutenant Eddie Frizell, to run the Fifth Precinct, on the city’s south side.
Perhaps most telling, white officers are angry at Dolan, too, including old friends. One buddy turned adversary is Sergeant John Delmonico, who heads the Police Federation, the union that represents officers. Delmonico, who declined comment for this story, wrote in a recent edition of Roll Call, the federation’s newsletter, “We are deeply concerned over the Administration’s growing number of initiatives to investigate officers for virtually anything that can happen during a shift…. We have been forced to file an unusual number of grievances and even lawsuits to defend [officers’] rights under the Labor Agreement and state and federal law.”
The federation also attempted to charge Dolan with theft for boarding his dog at the department kennel during a vacation. “That was a new road, filing a criminal complaint against the chief,” Dolan says ruefully. The union has lodged a challenge to virtually every disciplinary action he has taken, he says, but it has won only one. “It’s ironic that the Civilian Review Authority can’t stand me and the federation doesn’t like what I’m doing,” Dolan says. “The reality is, I should be somewhere in between. You know, [former Chief Tony] Bouza once said, ‘If everybody hates you, you are half right.’”
These are the slings and arrows that come with being an insider, says former chief Laux. “Just like you know the warts and shortcomings of some individuals, they know yours, too. They know what your hot buttons are. They know how to play you a little bit. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.”
MINNEAPOLIS’S DROP in crime has been the chief’s ace in the hole. No matter what missteps he makes as a manager, he can point to the fact that the number of murders in the city has declined more than 60 percent since he took office. Robberies are down 47 percent. Violent crime in general went down 37 percent between 2006 and 2009. Additionally, Dolan’s successful initiatives to stem juvenile crime—programs rooted in the anti-truancy efforts he first implemented on the north side—have garnered attention, awards, and backing from charities and corporations.
Still, there’s an old adage in police circles: Don’t take credit when crime goes down unless you’re prepared to accept blame when it goes up. In fact, the drop in crime in Minneapolis coincides with a decade-long decline in crime across the country, a trend that has sociologists, among others, scratching their heads. Explanations range from improved policing techniques, to the removal of lead from gas, to high numbers of first-generation immigrants (who tend to be less criminal than the average citizen), to the declining use of crack cocaine.
University of Minnesota sociologist and criminology professor Joachim Savelsberg believes the flashback-to-the-’60s crime rates are the result of economic prosperity, beginning with the boom of the 1990s. But if that’s the case, why hasn’t crime bolted upward during the present downturn? Savelsberg speculates there is a delayed effect. “It would be naïve to think that someone loses his or her job and robs someone the next day,” he says. “Maybe it’s long-term unemployment over many years, a lack of perspective and hope that sets in, that would motivate people to engage in criminal behavior.” Yet even against the backdrop of national trends, Savelsberg acknowledges that after Dolan became Minneapolis’s chief, “the drop in the crime rate was really quite remarkable.”
“Anybody who believes this is a pattern,” Rybak says, half-incensed, “hasn’t seen what’s going on here, the incredible work that the chief has done and the officers in the department have done.”
THE CHIEF turns his cruiser off Broadway, onto James Avenue. We roll past Cottage Park, a landscaped slice of grass in the middle of the city. “This used to be a horrible crime area here,” says Dolan. “This is where Kevin Brewer was shot and killed.” He’s referring to an 11-year-old boy who was slain in 2000 after stopping to watch a fight. Despite a crowd of witnesses, the case remains unsolved, a sore spot for community and police alike.
Life on the north side has improved markedly since then, he says. “Things move like a glacier, but they are moving. You can see that a lot of these homes have been redone. The improvements up here, if you look at them, even from five years ago, it’s dramatic.”
Take the comparison back further, to when Dolan was a kid, and he says the transformation is even more notable. “It’s much, much better,” he says, recalling the riots of the late ’60s that erupted along Plymouth Avenue and other parts of the neighborhood. “I used to sit on the front steps and we would listen and we could hear the explosions and the gunshots,” he says. “That was something. But you’re a kid. It was a whole different world. It was six blocks away.”
The chief pulls his car up to the Church of St. Philip, at the intersection of 25th and Bryant, where he spent much of his youth. It’s a dark, hulking building with a public garden on one side that’s missing a gate. Dolan admits that he doesn’t attend church much anymore. “I went to Catholic school, I was an altar boy, and I probably got to where I was burned out,” he says, adding that when he gets the rare day off, he likes to sleep in, even if it’s a Sunday. “I kind of grew away from it, but I still consider that my church.”
He turns down the alley that runs along the back of St. Philip, where there is a plaster wall bearing remarkably little graffiti. “Look at this wall,” Dolan says, marveling that it hasn’t been tagged. “I tell them, the reason that wall is not marked is because that’s the respect the kids show for what you have going here.”
In other words, to turn a dictum on its head, good deeds occasionally do go unpunished. It’s a sentiment Dolan clearly hopes will apply to him as well. “I believe in good,” he says, pulling away from the church.
Jennifer Vogel is a Minneapolis writer.